- Over the last several decades, there has been a marked increase in the amount of science outreach to the public with little attention paid to how scientists who conduct outreach perceive learning and how that applies to their outreach activities. This increase in outreach efforts is linked to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) increased push for publicly funded research to have more robust broader impacts on society. The science communication literature has examined how scientists communicate, objectives of communications, and more. However, to date, scientists’ understanding of learning has not been examined.
A survey tool with closed- and open-ended questions was used to answer the following research questions: 1) How do scientists who engage in outreach think about learning? (What do scientists think learning is and under what circumstances do scientists think learning best occurs?); and 2) How do scientists’ underlying understandings/perceptions of the learning process influence the strategies they employ during outreach to foster their audience’s learning? Two hundred and eleven surveys were completed and analyzed from participants representing emerging, mid-career, and senior professionals from a range of scientific disciplines, and varied experience in conducting outreach and participating in outreach professional learning experiences. The Communities of Practice framework (Lave & Wenger, 1991) was utilized as an analytical lens for a portion of the analysis. Findings showed most scientists in this study had a complex understanding of learning (constructivist, socioculturalist and cognitivist theories of learning); only a small portion strongly endorse the less complex behaviorist learning theory views, though a larger portion support strategies associated with behavioral views on learning. The data also suggest that distinguishing between different learning theories showed the complex ways in which scientists in this study thought about learning. Data suggest that scientists who are more experienced in science outreach may use more sophisticated strategies in preparing and implementing their outreach efforts. Findings also showed that those who had participated in professional learning experiences on science outreach found those helpful and would be interested in participating in similar programs in the future. The connections between how scientists conceive learning, the strategies they employ to operationalize their notions of learning when conducting outreach, and their outreach experience are extremely complex and deserve further study.
Keywords: science outreach, science engagement, public understanding of science, public engagement in science, science communication, learning theories, cognitivism, behaviorism, constructivism, socioculturalism, pedagogy, scientists’ views on learning, schema, online survey, snowball sampling, evidence-based learning, communities of practice, strategies, best practices, facilitating, professional development, professional learning, outreach modalities, learner-centered, active learning, assessment, jargon, action-reflection cycle, backwards design, gender, outreach professionals, broader impacts